“You know you're illegal, right?”
That's what a big kid—in second or third grade—said to me when I was in kindergarten. It was 1971 in New York City, and we sat waiting for our parents to pick us up after school. I didn't know what she was talking about so I ignored her.
“Do you even know you're illegal?”
Her tone was matter-of-fact, like a grown-up's, like she knew something I didn't. I stared at my shoes and reviewed my day in my head: Had I done something wrong? Cut the lunch line or hogged the swings? Pushed somebody in the playground? Refused to share the markers? Finally, I looked up at her without saying a word, hoping she'd see I was a good girl.
"I haven't done anything bad," I said.
When the girl didn't immediately reply, I thought I'd put an end to things.
But then, instead of contradicting me, she said, “Your mommy's white and your daddy's black, and that makes you illegal.”
A lot of things went through my mind as the heat began to rise in my cheeks—like how many times I could punch her before she punched me back and how far I could make it running down the street before the doorman caught me. But I was afraid to move, afraid to stir the air between us. Sitting there wrapped up in my hurt, one question rooted me in place: why had my parents never told me they weren't the same color?
In a picture from my parents' honeymoon, my mother stands by the stone seawall at Morro Castle in Havana's harbor. In a dark, short-sleeved dress that accentuates her fair complexion, there is no look of defiance on her face, only joy. She appears confident and in high spirits, the thick walls of the fortress rising behind her. Her chin is lifted slightly, as if she has been caught midlaugh. She faces the camera squarely, her gaze seeming to account only for the distance between her and my father, who is taking the picture. I can imagine him in pleated white pants and a softly patterned pastel shirt set against his dark brown skin. The sun is high in the afternoon sky, casting no shadows. My mother's expression is striking and gleeful. She is a newlywed of just a few days.
My parents were married in New York on February 15, 1950. They didn't want to appear overly sentimental by having their wedding on Valentine's Day, so they waited an additional twenty-four hours. Regardless of the date, only romance of the most idealistic kind could have moved them to join in matrimony as an interracial couple before the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Many of their friends fell away under the weight of prejudice during their courtship. Others grew weary when their sober warnings were ignored, and my parents did not stop to dwell on the challenges that they or their mixed-race children might face. Only a small core of friends remained when, after the wedding, it was clear that my parents intended to stand by their so-called ill-judgment. My grandparents, however, offered their support from the start and hid any worries they may have had. And while it was a comfort to know that someone was on their side, my parents never asked for anyone's blessings. Their union was a bare test of loyalty, separating those who would accept them from those who would not.
They were lucky to meet and fall in love in New York, one of only nine states never to enact antimiscegenation laws. First introduced in colonial Virginia and Maryland legislatures, the laws criminalized marriage between whites and enslaved blacks. But even after the abolition of slavery, states continued to adopt the laws in a legal move to restrict marriage based on race. Although some states permanently repealed the laws during Reconstruction, their constitutionality became widely questioned only after the Second World War when, in 1948, the California Supreme Court ruled that its statute against interracial marriage violated the Fourteenth Amendment. California became the first state to repeal such a law since 1887, and it was the first in a wave of other states that in the 1950s acknowledged the equal rights of people of all races to marry one another. Sixteen states would continue to enforce their laws against the “cohabitation” of whites and blacks until 1967, when the US Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. By then my parents already had three children and had long since become accustomed to the limbo between what is legal in the eyes of the state and irrelevant in matters of the heart. But I doubt they ever thought in such dramatic terms.
Not long ago, I pressed my mother for stories about the early years of her marriage. Since my father's death, she had become the executor of these memories. Because he had been the great storyteller of the family, she sometimes looked burdened with the responsibility of carrying on in his place. I braced myself for raw tales of denied apartment rental applications and racial slurs shouted from open car windows. But she struggled to recall anything that lived up to my expectations of ugliness. I caught myself trying to coach her.
“You never felt people were judging you and Dad?”
“I suppose,” she said.
“Didn't people ever give you nasty looks?”
“I'm sure they did.”
Her answers were frustratingly succinct.
She remembered only a time when a taxi driver refused to pick them up. They were with her parents, and my grandfather was outraged by the slight. A Jewish Ukrainian immigrant, my grandfather held high ideals of justice in his adopted land. He took down the taxi's medallion number and found a police officer to stand with them until they could hail another cab. A few months later, he took the offending driver to court. My mother couldn't recall what had come of the charge.
“That's it?” I said.
My mother's eyes narrowed. She looked surprised by my disappointment.
“I mean, it must have been hard dealing with what people thought,” I said.
She didn't hesitate in replying: “If we'd cared what other people thought, we wouldn't have gotten married.”
This no-nonsense remark was a variation on a theme she often repeated: “Why dwell on things that were never important in the first place?” Perhaps because the incident at my elementary school had been important to me, I had a difficult time believing that she and my father had never dwelled on the racial discrimination of the time. My brief exchange with that little girl had opened my eyes to differences I had not previously considered—not just that my parents were a different color from each other, but that I was a different color from other children. At five years old, I didn't know what, if anything, those differences could or should mean; I knew only they could be used to hurt your feelings. It would be years before I learned they could also be used to reject, target, and terrorize.
Young children learn social norms from adults, which leads me to suspect that the girl from my school had drawn her conclusions about my “legality” based on the opinions of her parents, who, as my parents' peers, were a small sampling of post-World War II attitudes about race in America. The fact that I can recall no other discriminatory incidents during my elementary school years says something about the softening of racial prejudice in the twenty years following my parents' wedding. Either that, or people had learned to better conceal their contempt. Whichever it was, I have little doubt that when my parents were first married their relationship was viewed with vitriol. In an effort to understand my mother's unwillingness to discuss such things, I had to sort history and logic from sentiment and survival. I believe that when times are hardest, when we feel most isolated and threatened, we hold tight to those most dear to us and shut out the rest of the world. Maybe that is what my mother was really trying tell me with her concise answers to my loaded questions: “We loved each other. Period.”
Fewer than a dozen pictures survive of the two months my parents spent in Cuba for their honeymoon. My mother keeps them together in a small plastic photo album in a drawer in the living room. Flipping through them, I noticed a conspicuous absence of shots of my parents together. Instead, the photos are companion pieces—my mother in front of the castle, my father in front of the castle; my mother beside the seawall in the harbor, and then my father in her place. It's as if they never thought to ask someone to snap a picture of them standing with each other.
“We didn't speak much Spanish,” my mother said, reaching across the table to stroke the pages of the little book. “Or maybe your father was afraid someone would steal the camera.” She laughed. “Who remembers anymore?”
I looked more closely at the photos. My parents' fresh, seeking expressions are as familiar as they are strange; these are the early versions of them, before they carried evidence of children and age in soft layers around their middles and circled darkly under their eyes. I liked seeing them like this, but the difference was enough to make me ask, Are these really the same people who raised me? Do I detect my mother's lifelong fear of deep water in the face of this young woman casting a nervous, sideways glance at the sea? Am I correct in noting a flash of my father's melodrama in the way he plants his hand on his hip? What would I have noticed if, as a child, I had seen a picture of them standing together on their honeymoon? His brown arm reaching around her slim waist to grasp her fair hand. Would the difference in their races have been more obvious in a two-dimensional comparison than it was sitting with them at the dinner table?
“How come we never talked about race at home?” I said.
“What would have been the point?” she said.
This comment seemed as much about the past as it was about our present conversation, so I turned a page in the little book and asked her to tell me stories about the honeymoon. For the next hour we relaxed into a reverie of a pre-Castro tropical paradise.
Around the time I had this conversation with my mother, I read a New York Times article by Aliyah Baruchin, a woman of Greek and Russian Jewish descent who is married to a Sierra Leonean. In the article she chronicles the efforts she and her husband have made to help their daughter see their biracial union as the norm. As a toddler, Baruchin's daughter was oblivious to the curiosity (at best) and racial prejudice (at worst) whispered behind her back. I also don't recall being aware of such whispers as a young child, nor do I remember the stares my parents and I likely got. Baruchin describes the conscious decisions she and her husband have made—in terms of where they live, where their daughter attends school, how they celebrate holidays—to create an atmosphere of diversity.
When I was in kindergarten, the language of diversity was not as well realized as it is today. Today, we speak of racial and ethnic differences as a civic strength, and even if communities give only lip service to cultural inclusion, it is still in sharp contrast to the 1960s and '70s, when biracialism was much less discussed. Given this social perspective, I can accept my parents' reticence on the topic of race as a sign of the times, and I honor their decision—whether it was intentional or not—to model acceptance instead of talk about it. Baruchin describes a family life where cultural differences are more explicitly explored than they were in my family. And yet many of the challenges—despite the span of decades—remain the same. Baruchin describes an incident in a clothing store when two white children hide their toy purses because they say, looking over at Baruchin's light-brown-skinned daughter, “She will take it.” When I read this, it conjured that old elementary school hurt; it was like pressing on a bruise, one that you thought had long since healed.
By the time my children were born, my father was ill with Alzheimer's and, for the last nine months of his life, my parents lived with us. One afternoon, as my mother helped my father into his wheelchair, my four-year-old pulled me aside and said: “Grandma and Grandpa aren't the same color, right?” She asked as though it was the first time she'd noticed, and it possibly was.
“That's right,” I said. “Why?” I was nervous to hear her response.
“No reason,” she said.
Four years after he passed away, I sat with my mother watching the election returns for the 2008 presidential race. My mother bought a chocolate cake in anticipation of Barack Obama's victory.
“I wish your father had lived to see this,” she said.
I wished he had too.
We picked frosting from around the edges of the cake, too superstitious to have a celebratory slice until the race officially was called.
I thought back to their honeymoon itinerary. They'd flown to Havana with a layover in Miami, a city where, at the time, interracial marriage was punishable by law. Could anyone in that airport have imagined that a person of biracial background would ever hold the highest political post in the nation? My children were unfazed by Mr. Obama's mixed race and his victory. “What's the big deal?” my son said. “He got the most votes, right?” The sight of so many people crying during the inauguration confused my daughter, who asked, “Are they worried he might not do a good job?”
Later, I decided to frame Obama's victory in terms of my parents' wedding and asked my mother if I could show the children the honeymoon album. She keeps it in a chest of drawers in the living room, where she now also stores a copy of the front page of our local newspaper from the day after the election. The headline reads “Change Has Come.” The little plastic album, with a yellowed line drawing of a garden on the cover, is tucked neatly in the opposite corner of the drawer, where it makes its own quiet claim on history.
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